"Bones and I"/Introduction

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LONG ago, visiting the monastery of La Trappe, I was struck with the very discontented appearance of its inmates. In some of their faces, indeed, I detected no expression whatever, but on none could I perceive the slightest gleam of satisfaction with their lot. No wonder: few men are of the stuff that makes a good recluse. The human animal is naturally gregarious, like the solan goose, the buffalo, the monkey, or the mackerel. Put him by himself, he pines for lack of mental aliment, just as a flower fades for want of daylight in the dark. A multitude of fools forms an inspiriting spectacle, a solitary specimen becomes a sad and solemn warning. If the Trappists, who are not entirely isolated from their kind, thus wither under the rigour of those repressive rules enjoined by the Order, what must have been the condition of such hermits and anchorites as passed whole months, and even years together, in the wilderness, unvisited by anything more human than the distempered phantoms of their dreams? No shave, no wash, no morning greeting, and no evening wine. How many, I wonder, preserved their sanity in the ordeal? how many, returning dazed and bewildered to the haunts of men, tottered about in helpless, wandering, maundering imbecility? Were there not some hard, boisterous natures who plunged wildly into the excesses of a world so long forsworn, with all the appetite of abstinence, all the reckless self-abandonment of the paid-off man-of-war's man on a spree? No; few people are qualified for recluses. I am proud to be amongst the number.

I live in a desert, but my desert is in the very heart of London. The waste is all round me though; I have taken good care of that. Once, indeed, it blossomed like the rose, for a thousand fertilizing streams trickled through its bright expanse. Do not you as I did. I turned all the streams into one channel, "in the sweet summer-time long ago," and "sat by the river," like those poor fools in the song, and said, "Go to! Now I shall never thirst again!" But in the night there came a landslip from the upper level, and choked the river, turning its course through my neighbour's pastures, so that the meadows, once so green and fresh, are bare and barren now for evermore. I speak in parables of course; and the value of "this here obserwation," like those of Captain Bunsby, "lies in the application of it." I need not observe, the street in which I hide myself is a cul de sac. A man who sells chickweed, perhaps I should say, who would sell chickweed if he could, is the only passenger. Of the houses on each side of me, one is unfinished, the other untenanted. Over the way, I confront the dead wall at the back of an hospital. Towards dusk in the late autumn, when the weather is breaking, I must admit the situation is little calculated to generate over-exuberance of animal spirits. Sequestered, no doubt, shady too, particularly in the short days, and as remote from the noise or traffic of the town as John o' Groat's house, but enlivening—No.

On first beginning to reside here, I confess I felt at times a little lonely and depressed. Therefore I brought home "Bones" to come and live with me. And who is "Bones?" Ah! that is exactly what I have never been able to find out. Contemplative, affable, easily pleased, and an admirable listener, he is yet on some points reserved to a degree that might almost be termed morose; while in his personal appearance there is a dignity of bearing, an imposing presence, which forbids the most intimate associate to attempt a liberty.

I will describe him, as I see him at this moment, reclining in an easy attitude on the cushions of my favourite arm-chair, benevolently interested, it would seem, in my lightest movements, while I sit smoking silently by the fire. Neither of us are great talkers quite so early in the evening.

He is a well-formed and very complete skeleton of middle height—perfect in every respect, and in all his articulations, with the exception of two double teeth absent from the upper jaw. The arch of his lower ribs is peculiarly symmetrical, and his vertebræ are put in with a singular combination of flexibility and strength. As I look at him now leaning back in a graceful attitude, with one thigh-bone thrown carelessly over the other, he reminds me of so many people I knew when I lived in the world, that I seem to fancy myself once more a denizen of that revolving purgatory which goes by the name of general society Poor A—— was almost as fleshless, B—— much more taciturn, and C—— decidedly not so good-looking. "Bones," however, possesses a quality that I have never found in any other companion. His tact is beyond praise. Under no circumstances does he become a bore—that is why we get on so admirably together. Like a ghost, he speaks only when spoken to. Unlike a wife, refrains from monopolizing the last word. If he didn't rattle so on the slightest movement—a fault of anatomy, indeed, rather than temper—as a companion he would be—perfection.

It is a dull, close evening. Were it not so near winter one might predict a thunderstorm. The smoke from my meerschaum winds upwards in thin blue wreaths, uninfluenced by a breath of outward air, though the windows are open to the deserted street, black and silent as the grave. My lamp is not yet lit (we both affect a congenial gloom), the fire is burning out, but there is a dull red glow like a fever-spot lowering under a volcanic arch of cinders; and looking into it with unwinking eyes, I see the long-drawn, weary, beaten road that leads backward through a life. I see a child set down to run alone, half-frightened, laughing, trusting, almost happy, and altogether gay. I see a youth, bold, healthful, courageous, full of an impossible chivalry, a romantic generosity that delights to lavish no matter what—money, love, hope, happiness, coining heart and intellect into gold that he may squander it on the passers-by. I see a strong man crushed—a proud head grovelling in the dust, a high spirit broken, a cowering wretch imploring that his punishment may be lightened ever such a little, trembling and wincing like a slave beneath the scourge. At this moment the fire falls in with a crash, while a pale yellow flame leaps flickering out of the midst, and starting from my seat to light our lamp for the rest of the evening, I demand aloud, "What then is the purpose of Creation? From a quenched rushlight to an extinct volcano, from the squeak of a mouse to yesterday's leading article, from a mite smothered in a cheese to an Emperor murdered in Mexico, is the march of Time but the destructive progress of a bull in a china-shop? Are the recurring centuries but so many ciphers added to the sum of a thriftless, objectless expenditure? Is the so-called economy of the universe but an unbridled, haphazard course of boundless and incalculable waste?"

His backbone creaks uncomfortably while he moves in his chair. "Waste?" he repeats in the hushed, placid tones that make him so invaluable as a companion—"Waste? The subject is by no means limited. I have some experience in it of my own. Would you favour me with your ideas?"—and I go off at score with—